Picturing his daughter Isabel as she grows from a child to a woman, Colin Pantall gives an alternative take on family life
Colin Pantall began photographing his daughter, Isabel, in the delivery room moments after she was born. From then on, “it was just constant”, he says. Previously, the pictures he took were architectural, environmental, sometimes historical; but becoming a father re-oriented him entirely.
The transition wasn’t effortless. In the early days his experience of fatherhood was spiked with feelings of claustrophobia and intense anxiety – fear of Isabel’s death, fear of his own. A sense that he could easily become obsolete.
At the time, Pantall, 53, and his writer wife Katherine were living in a flat in Bath that he describes as “scrappy”. He quickly found that taking Isabel outside saw off any feelings of negativity, countering “the stultified life lived between four walls”. For their outings he chose places that used to be something else – the Anglo Saxon settlement on Solsbury Hill, for instance, or the woods of Brown’s Folly, where trees now grow along the contours of one of the old Bath-stone mines.
Over the years – Isabel is now 16 – Pantall made almost 1000 pictures in these places. All the while, he was photographing life at home too. Sifting through them, around two years ago, he was unsure what he had made. “It was Katherine who understood,” he recalls. “‘Can’t you see?’ she said. ‘It’s a self-portrait.’ And it is. It’s a portrait of me as a photographer but also of that idea of fatherhood and my relationship with Isabel.”
All Quiet on the Home Front, to be published in November by ICVL Studio, collates dozens of images taken between 2005 and 2017. It is a beautiful, still essay in pictures and words, sequenced so that our impressions of Isabel shift from one page to another, splintering before our eyes. One minute we think we have her – energetic, intense – and then she is gone, half hidden or running away.
It’s erratic and intriguing – not that different from the frustrations that come with trying to understand another human being, whether child or adult. There’s a sense, too, that Pantall is hoarding every moment in anticipation of an inevitable parting.
“Nothing that can prepare you for the shock of becoming a parent; you kind of lose yourself,” he says. “It drives you insane. But then you gain a new identity, only for that to die too, when you realise they have their own lives to lead. Then you have to have another rebirth. I don’t think it’s always that comfortable. Sometimes you wish things were different. You wish your children away at times. You always wish them back.”
The book is part of a group of family-based works Pantall is working on, which include a German family album from the 1930s (Pantall’s mother is German), and Sofa Portraits, which pictures Isabel watching television on the same coffee-coloured settee, variously wide-eyed and somnolent.
Pantall has always been interested in “the mythology of the family”, he says. As a senior lecturer in photography at the University of South Wales, he often asks his students to bring in a family snap. “They’re always really standard but then the students start talking: murder, desertion, abuse and none of it is represented in the pictures.
“That propaganda involved in presenting one’s family to the world, it fascinates me. We have these idealised views of what a father or a mother should be and what children should be and do. But there’s always a mass of emotion bubbling away under all those assumed identities. It’s never all quiet on the home front.”